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3D Printing the Next Industrial Revolution?
This past week I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the CUE(Computer Using Educators) conference. There were many fascinating new ways of integrating technology into education on display and being discussed. One of the most eye opening to me though was using 3D printers in schools. I have been following the development of 3D printers for a long time but had not made the connection to education before. For those of you that don't know what a 3D printer is, it is essentially a printer that instead of printing a single layer of ink as flat as possible it uses inkjet technology with some modifications to print multiple layers of material, usually plastic, to create 3D models from computer drawings.
3D printers are not new; when I went to Cal Poly we had what was called a rapid prototyper, a machine costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that could print 3D plastic models over the course of several hours. What has changed is now is the price. 3D printers can now be purchased for under $1000 dollars and huge online communities have started making open source products that anyone can print at home for free less the cost of the printer and plastic ink.
One of the most exciting examples of how this technology is changing the world around us is a 3D printed prosthetic hand that was created in collaborative effort by two people living halfway across the world, one of which had lost his fingers in a woodworking accident. There design is posted on the largest 3D printing database: thingiverse and can be downloaded and printed by any 3D printer at no cost. This hand (shown right) has allowed children across the world to regain some functionality of lost limbs and even play baseball, and unlike traditional prosthetics the designs are open source and freely available online. This brings the cost of a prosthetic from thousands to under $100.
In universities engineering students are using using 3D printers to rapidly prototype a variety of parts. This can make expensive projects of the past approachable in higher education. One example is rocket nozzles. Designing rocket nozzles is expensive because of the detailed and skilled machining that was once required just to test a design and it may take many designs before creating a success. UCSD students used this technology to create a nozzle that can be used to put a 1 kg load in orbit. This is the method that NASA adopted for future rocket designs due not only to cost but speed.
3D printing has made big waves in the for profit arena as well. In the private industry, Boeing has begun to install 3D printers in hangers that can print parts that are stronger, cheaper and lighter than traditional parts and since they can be made in hours parts are printed overnight instead of shipped in from other countries. This means reducing a wait time from weeks to days for parts. In for-profit medicine, people are using 3D printers to manufacture human organs(3D printed kidney shown left), using cells rather than plastic. Some 3D printed bladders are already in people and more complex organs like kidneys and livers are on the near horizon.
As many exciting new technologies go this also has a dark side. One example is an open source 3D printed handgun. This gun is pretty rudimentary and tends to break after only a few uses but as the technology develops, especially with metal 3D printers, this will become an increasing risk. Another area of concern is the copyright infringement issue. Rather than a Napster of music, many are discussing a Napster of things. In theory, if the technology advances rather than buying a tablet you could print one at home. They already have 3d printers that can print at the nanometric scale(shown right) needed for complex computer parts. Even if the printers were too expensive, black market print shops could print more complex objects at a reduced price with no royalties to the original designer. Since most of the cost of technology is from the designing of parts, not manufacturing costs, this could stifle innovation. Thingiverse has already had to take down many designs for infringement.
Despite these risks and issues as with the march of all things technology there is no going back and with all of these developments many are calling this the next industrial revolution. Some schools are adopting it to develop the design skills students will need to work with 3D printers as a literacy they feel students should have. This technology clearly lends itself to the upper grades and high school designing mechanical objects, with gears and hinges, but some elementary schools are using it to bring lessons to life. In one example, 6th graders would hypothesize insect evolutions that would adapt them to live in their classroom environment and then modify existing insect body shapes and print them out on 3D printers. (Shown left) In the younger grades they are printing out fossils and bones that museums are uploading for free to give students hands-on experience with some of the things that are discussed in class about animal adaptations. All of this scaffoldings into the design work they would be doing at an older age and potentially at a job after school.
It is unclear if buying a 3D printer is a good investment for schools at this point. The design software is still fairly complex. One thing that is clear, however, is that 3D printing technology is changing our world in very significant ways, even from its infancy. It will be interesting to watch it continue to evolve and it may not be too much longer before 3D printing becomes common in education.
Graphite is a database of apps, tools and websites from Common Sense Media. This project is largely bankrolled by the Gates foundation and lists thousands of resources, vetted and rated using a common rubric by educators. In addition many are linked to lesson plans and classroom ideas. It really is a great resource to help navigate the 1,000,000 plus apps, tools and other resources available today!
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